Tuesday, 7 January 2014
Award Season 2014
If you're a BSFA member, go nominate your pick of last year's best SF/Fantasy. If you've registered for Loncon 14, toddle off to post your nominations for the 2014 Hugo Awards and the John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer, as well as for the 1939 Retro-Hugo Awards. The more people get involved, the greater the wisdom-of-crowds wisdom that can be brought to bear on the matter. Awards are, at their best, a symptom of the genre's rude health, of reader engagement and celebration, belweathers of the best in today's writing. My advice would be: think about it; google around; mull over what you have read but just as importantly use the time (not to mention, the preternaturally clear-headed energy you are currently experiencing thanks to that successfully executed New Year's Resolution to stop the drinking) to sample as widely as you can amongst the stuff you haven't yet read. I wouldn't be so impertinent as to tell you what to nominate: you're perfectly capable of making up your own mind, of course. The most I would do is prompt you not to ignore the kind of work that gets pushed to the edges by the marketing juggernauts, most especially writing by women, by writers of colour, writers who work in languages other than English, and above all work by that most oppressed and put-upon minority group -- writers compelled to grow enormous neckbeards in an attempt to stem the crippling self-esteem collapse caused by their male-pattern baldness.
Not that last one, obviously.
So, yes, I know: there isn't a way I can make that perfectly sane point without sounding condescending, or smugly PC. It's worth making, though. I take it as axiomatic that the only reason to nominate a book, story or film is the merit of the book, story or film itself. Vote for the text not the author, and most especially not for how efficiently ubiquitizing the author's publicity machine has proved. I also take it as axiomatic that the best writers are just statistically really really unlikely to be found all in one white, male, western demographic. Beyond that, and I think not incompatible with it, is my belief that one of the strengths of SF/F is its diversity, the fact that it is centrally about the engagement with otherness. Not everybody sees genre that way, of course; but it's how I see it, and why I write it.
Which brings me to: self-pimpage. Award season is also the start of the 'for your consideration' blogposts, in which writers large and small draw potential voters' attention to all the things they have published during the relevant period and try, with varying degrees of success, to find endearing or witty ways of making VOTE FOR QUIMBY sound less self-serving than it actually is. I used to find all that blather annoying and vulgar. Nowadays I find it more directly loathly, because it seems to me directly and negatively distorting of the award shortlists that follow. Like cigarette advertising, people wouldn't do it if it didn't work; and like cigarette advertising (though with less specifically health-harmful consequences for social morbidity) it shouldnta oughta be alloweda work. Awards should reward the best books, stories and films, not the authors with the biggest megaphones or largest body of loyal minions.
SF Awards have, as a rule, much to recommend them; but they have two big flaws. One is the loyalty implied in the descriptor 'fan', in which a shitty work by an author of whom (or a shitty episode of a show of which) one is a fan gets your vote because that's what being a fan means -- it means sticking with your team. Ditto: voting for an author rather than voting for a text. Here the niceness or popularity of a given author may overshadow the merits of the books said author has actually produced. We can all think of examples of this sort of thing on recent awards shortlists without needing to get personal by citing specifics *coughs*HUGOS*coughs*. There's no shame in being a fan; I'm a fan myself. But the sports analogy is misleading. Awards are not about asserting your fan-loyalty, but about celebrating the disinterested endeavour after artistic perfection, the best that has been said and thought in the world.
The second flaw is the way people often vote for what is shiny and directly in front of their faces, not necessarily because they are idiots, but perhaps because their time is short, they want to be involved in the process but don't want to bother researching the full gamut of possibles, because they don't care all that much, or a hundred other explanations. It means that works can get onto shortlists not because they are necessarily very good, but merely because that have been dangled directly in front of people, by (a) expensive marketing campaigns, hype, or being on the gogglebox, or (b) the aggressive self-promotion of energetic authors strenuously seeking to maximize their online profile. I'm not suggesting that (what we might call) ordinary self-promotion, something of which I am myself often guilty, is to be deplored. Ordinary self-promotion projects the writer into the realm of commercial argy-bargy. That's about sales. Awards self-pimpage uses the same tools in an idiom that is not about sales, but merit (or should be: or else we might as well do away with award shortlists and just give our prizes to the year's best-sellers).
There are various defences offered by self-pimpers, One is: hey it's just a public service, making it easier for fans to see what their options are when it comes to voting. What this actually says to me is: 'making it easier for the guy with the loudest megaphone to shoehorn his way onto the shortlists'. Two is more anxious-sounding: everybody else is doing it, if I don't do it I'll be overlooked. Specious logic, I think, precisely because everybody else is not doing it. It's a structurally insecure piece of reasoning; on a par with 'hey, everybody else is fiddling their taxes' and 'hey, everybody else is stealing office supplies'. It tacitly concedes that awards-pimping is not really desirable behaviour, but thinks that the problem can be addressed by universalising it: if everybody else pimped their work at awards time it would level the playing field. An equivalence is if nobody pimped their work at awards time it would not only level the playing field but do so, but more fairly and with less effort all round. We can't outlaw it, but we can delegitimise it, by frowning upon it and refusing to nominate works so touted. Imagine if the only people allowed to recommend works for award nomination were the people who hadn't actually written those works! It's easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky and so on and so forth. I'm not especially enamoured of the third option, a kind of compromise where Author A pimps his/her (by and large it's his) eligible titles, and then leaves the comments-thread open for others to nominate other people. I'll confess I find that just jarring. The first part of the strategy tugs wheedlingly at your lapel like Muttley desperate for medals; the second part has a seigneurial 'see how graciously I permit the lower orders a few small parps on my megaphone' aspect to it.
So I won't pimp my stuff for awards. The cynical amongst you might note that this leaves me with a face-saving counter-factual for when I'm not shortlisted for any Hugos: I can say 'well, who knows what might have happened if I played the self-pimpage game! Of course, I'm above such vulgarity ...' Whereas if I self-pimped and still didn't get nominated I'd be forced back on uncomfortable reflections concerning the inadequacies of my work, or my public personality, or both. And this is, actually, exactly the preening foppish tone I adopt when I do talk to myself, although I repudiate your cynicism nonetheless. I'm perfectly well-aware that self-pimping or not self-pimping will have exactly the same effect as far as me getting any Hugo noms goes. This fact, of course, makes it easier than it might otherwise be for me to abjure pimpage. For others, those with a real shot, it may not be so easy. I understand that.
Still, though I won't self-pimp, I will pimp for others: not (as I said above) to tell you what you nominate, but to lay out various worthy possibles. I'll recommend the Strange Horizon reviewers' best of 2013 list, for starters: lots of good things there. Usually I contribute a piece to it myself; I didn't this year because The Guardian got to me first: here's the round-up I wrote for them. All worth thinking about, I'd say. There are a few things that I didn't put on that list, either because at the time of drafting it I hadn't got around to reading them, or for more lamentable reasons. Into the first category I would add Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (which recently picked up the Costa award), Steve Baxter's Proxima. In the second category I would add Ian Sales's The Eye With Which The Universe Behold Itself and Peter Higgins' Wolfhound Century, both of which I read as advance copies in 2012 and which my brain refused to allot to the proper publication year; and Tom Pollock's The Glass Republic, even better than his series' excellent first instalment, The City's Son. I can't remember why I didn't include it in the Guardian list. Perhaps because my brain is made of cheese. Several of these writers are friends of mine, though; so you need to take these recs with a pinch of salt. For non-fiction I'd recommend Ytasha L Womack's Afrofuturism, Aris Mousoutzanis and Nick Hubble's The Science Fiction Handbook (though I have an essay in this collection, so my recommendation is a little tainted), Justin Landon & Jared Shurin's Speculative Fiction and (ITMA!) Shurin's excellent series of Gemmell Award reviews.